If you pooled the technology resources of city hall, the police department, local businesses, area hospitals, a university, and elementary and secondary schools of a single community, what would you have? Answer: The iNet gigabit ethernet of Monterey Bay, Calif.

Thanks to a rare collaboration among all the government agencies, schools, and other public entities in Monterey Bay, students, instructors, and other community members in this coastal city now enjoy internet connectivity at speeds more than 600 times faster than a T1 line can provide–and they enjoy it at just a fraction of the customary cost.

What makes the project uncommon is the degree of cooperation participants say exists among the city’s political, commercial, and educational institutions. Because they all share the same network infrastructure, they have been able to pool their resources and provide a high-quality technology program at a cost much lower than taxpayers would pay if they had used a traditional approach. Cutting costs even further, the city was able to negotiate a first-rate deal with its local cable company to lay fiber-optic cable for the network’s backbone.

Monterey Bay’s success could serve as a blueprint for other communities. But the process wasn’t without significant challenges, the most notable of which was getting everyone on board.

The citywide iNet was completed this spring, too late for most of the city’s K-12 schools and universities to take full advantage. But come fall, students and teachers in this seaside community will have a whole new world of learning opportunities at their disposal. These include prospects for research, collaboration, and distance education that would have scarcely been possible previously.

Public officials, meanwhile, will use the high-speed network–which allows for the rapid transfer of large amounts of text, audio, video, and voice traffic–to encourage greater participation by the community in its local government and to foster more partnerships between businesses and government agencies.

Fred Cohn, deputy city manager for Monterey Bay, is widely regarded as the visionary leader who spearheaded the iNet initiative. He said the project grew out of the city’s cable television franchising process.

iNet was created when Monterey Bay’s cable provider was rebuilding its subscriber infrastructure in the city using a hybrid of fiber-optic wire and coaxial cable, Cohn explained. “The city paid an additional cost to place additional fiber at our disposal. That became the institutional network, the iNet,” he said.

Cohn said the cable operator was a private company using public property to do business. So officials in Monterey Bay believed the public was entitled to something in return. The secret to the success of the network’s implementation, he said, was “treating the cable-franchising process as a strategic opportunity for the community, instead of just another contract.”

The iNet project was an effective and affordable way to support internet connectivity for the city’s institutions at a time when budgets were shrinking, he added. Before the network was installed, he said, the city’s government agencies operated on a mix of T1 lines, DSL or ISDN technology, dial-up connections, “and string with tin cans.”

Cohn said the city government, educational institutions, businesses, and nonprofit organizations in Monterey Bay chose to share in the network’s cost for a few reasons.

“The first was partner-to-partner communication and internal organizational communication,” he said. Second, “they did it for the economy of scale that the iNet offers. There’s a great business case to support this…. We’re getting gigabit connectivity basically at T1 prices.” Cohn suggests the savings amount to one-tenth of the total amalgamated cost of the earlier connectivity hodge-podge.

Sue Buske of the Buske Group, a telecommunications consulting firm that worked with the city on the renegotiation of its cable contract, said the fiber links more than 40 places in the city. She said the network was based on a “thorough needs assessment that took into account where the city would be going in the next 10 to 15 years–where do schools, libraries, government agencies need to go? How can connectivity be a part of that?”

Operating over Cisco Systems equipment, iNet allows video conferencing among facilities, and the city is launching a wireless initiative to extend network access to remote personnel as a way to improve productivity. City council meetings are now available on government-access TV, both live via broadcast and on-demand over the internet. Cohn said the meetings’ availability has increased community interest and heightened in-person attendance at council meetings. The network also has allowed Monterey Bay to implement a comprehensive disaster-recovery plan, involving off-site data backups, he said.

The network uses standard Cisco Catalyst 4006 and 3500 Series switches, 7200 Series routers, and Cisco Aironet 1200 Series wireless access points. Virtual Private Network, or VPN, technology was used to set up a virtual “fence” separating each entity, so data intended only for the city’s police department don’t end up in the hands of school administrators–and vice versa.

Leslie Buckalew, a spokeswoman for Cisco’s education industry marketing division, said the biggest challenge Cohn faced in implementing the infrastructure had nothing to do with hardware difficulties or infrastructure design. Cisco handled those matters and has been quickly forthcoming, according to Cohn, with technical support, updates, and meeting other technical needs.

Buckalew said the primary challenge consisted of establishing trust among all the parties in Monterey Bay. Cohn managed to sell the “leveraged relationship of a shared network that allows students to do real-time projects that serve the community,” she said. That feat was not so much a coup, she said, as an extension of the way the community traditionally has governed itself. “Monterey has a history of cooperation among its residents,” Buckalew explained.

Still, Monterey Bay faced several other challenges in working out the iNet deal, Cohn said. One was negotiating the contract with the cable company. Another involved getting all of the partners lined up and committed. Yet another obstacle was engineering a solution that supported collective requirements of the diverse partners involved.

Because iNet went online near the close of the academic year, K-12 students in Monterey Bay will not be using the network until the beginning of the 2005-06 academic year. But there are 30 academic institutions in the Monterey Bay area, many of which already have begun to make use of the system.

Arlene Krebs, the director of wireless and distance learning technology for California State University-Monterey Bay, said iNet will help the university provide for historically underserved communities–including migrant farm workers and minorities.

Across the country in Mystic, Conn., the Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration, founded by explorer and discoverer of the Titanic, Robert Ballard, is also making use of the greater connectivity created by Monterey Bay’s iNet.

iNet, according to Tom Dudchik, director of the institute’s “Immersion Presents” program, makes use of robotics and communications technology to give students real-time access to expeditions taking place around the world. For example, the program uses iNet’s gigabit connectivity to broadcast interactive “live dives” from underwater locations in Monterey Bay to students worldwide.

“All of that is because of what the city of Monterey did in building the iNet,” Dudchik said. “It’s a really great infrastructure for us.”

See these related links:

City of Monterey Bay
http://www.monterey.org

Buske Group
http://www.buskegroup.com

Cisco
http://www.cisco.com

California State University-Monterey Bay
http://csumb.edu

Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration
http://www.mysticaquarium.org